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NATO’s Summit: Implications for Australia



25 November 2010 11:27

Dr Benjamin Schreer is a Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

For Australia's strategic decision-makers, last weekend's NATO Summit in Lisbon delivered two major results. First, allies agreed on a 'new phase' for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. While they will stay the course until the end of 2014, their troop contributions will be reduced thereafter. Second, NATO's new Strategic Concept confirms the alliance's trajectory as an instrument of global crisis management and opens up new possibilities for cooperation with Australia.

The Australian Government should capitalise on these outcomes and develop a plan for a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan after 2014.

Prior to the summit, Prime Minister Gillard had publicly committed Australian troops to a long-term engagement in Afghanistan. She also said she would press NATO leaders in Lisbon not to abandon Afghanistan. She didn't have to, as the major European allies had long agreed to support President Obama's strategy to intensify the war effort over the next few years. This includes a greater willingness to engage in sustained counterinsurgency operations and to risk casualties.

Yet the summit also made it clear that NATO's Afghanistan engagement is not open-ended at its current scale. The goal of putting Afghan National Security Forces in the lead in all provinces by the end of 2014 sends a strong signal to domestic audiences and to Kabul that NATO's military footprint will eventually be much lighter. The handover of provinces will start next year.

The 'Iraq model' comes to mind, where US combat troops have been significantly reduced and where remaining forces are mostly in an assisting role. Great Britain's 'firm deadline' to pull out its fighting forces in 2015 is telling in this regard.

This dynamic has implications for Australia. Domestically, the Gillard Government can frame ADF deployment in Afghanistan as Australia's contribution to a determined international coalition effort. At the same time, the Prime Minister should use the Lisbon momentum to start communicating her own timetable for handing over responsibility in Oruzgan province by the end of 2014. While she has rightly refused to support a short-term exit, it will become increasingly difficult to argue for a long-term commitment as major NATO allies reduce their forces.

Providing this long-term perspective to withdraw a visible Australian contingent in 2015 would not undermine current ADF operations to degrade the insurgency and to build local security forces. Nor would it conflict with Australia's desire to remain a loyal US ally. Again, the Iraq example is instructive, where the US accepted Australia's decision to withdraw its forces given the considerable lead-time provided by the Howard Government.

Further, strategic decision-makers in Canberra should see NATO's new Strategic Concept as a surprisingly forward-looking document that carries potential for deeper Australian cooperation with the alliance. The Strategic Concept is NATO's premier conceptual guideline defining its major goals, ends and means.

At a first glance, analysts might be disappointed to find that the document does not even mention Australia or any other Asia-Pacific partner. However, its section on how to develop NATO's relationships with 'partners across the globe' is more substantive than any previous NATO document.

Of immediate interest for Australia is the decision to give NATO's operational partners a 'structural role in shaping strategy and decisions on NATO-led missions to which they contribute'. This has long been a major Australian goal in the context of the ISAF operation, and the Strategic Concept can now be used to bring about increased Australian influence in NATO political and operational headquarters.

Equally important, the new Concept confirms NATO's intention to play a more efficient role in global crisis management. Expectations that NATO would 'return home' to the Euro-Atlantic after the difficulties in Afghanistan have not been fulfilled. Instead, NATO's future core tasks include collective defence, crisis management, and cooperative security. Whereas collective defence remains the core principle around which NATO is built, the strong emphasis on crisis management and cooperative security demonstrates that, despite Afghanistan and the global financial crisis, the alliance will remain engaged in international security affairs.

Finally, the document stresses that NATO stands ready to cooperate more closely with 'any nations and relevant operations across the globe'. This pragmatic approach to partnerships reflects the assumption that global security challenges require a global security network. While this does not mean that NATO will become a major strategic actor in the Asia-Pacific, it will likely develop increased nodes of security cooperation with emerging Asian powers such as China, India and Indonesia. All the more reasons for Australia to look at ways to further develop its ties with the alliance.

Photo by Flickr user poniblog, used under a Creative Commons license.

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